Like most kids growing up in the 80s, I was both obsessed with (and inspired to pick up the guitar by) Van Halen. I liked some Zeppelin songs and the like, but I never wanted to play until I heard VH. Suddenly I HAD to. A large part of it was the fact that the hammer-on technique Edward Van Halen first demonstrated on “Eruption” was beyond fascinating to me. I’d later find that the technique itself is pretty straightforward: usually with the fret-hand index finger holds the root note, a second note is added with your ring or pinky finger, and you drop in a hammered note at a higher interval with the index finger of your picking hand (or perhaps the pick itself if you’re into that sort of thing).
At the time, however, I’d never heard anything like it. Most of us hadn’t. All I knew was I had to learn how to do it. An admirable goal, but when you’re 14 you don’t realize that learning the technique itself alone is not enough. You have to take it and make something unique or at least different about it. Neither did I realize at the time that a million other kids were learning it, leading to legions of kids playing bad “Eruption” covers. A quick listen to some random 80s and early 90s bands that didn’t survive past the era reveals a lot of kids never grew out of the “imitation” phase. And as they say, imitation is pale. Unless, y’know, you’re in a tribute band or something, then clone on!
Fortunately for me, my first guitar teacher Chuck Biel was big on originality. It wasn’t enough to learn the licks: you had to do something with them. Sure, he’d teach you how to play a certain song if you wanted, but he’d also send you home with an assignment to write a riff of your own to jam on next lesson. In the one-on-one lessons and in study groups and student jams he conducted he always stressed branching out with idea and trying to think outside the box. Hammer-ons were no different. There was no rule that said they always had to be done one way anyone was aware of, but a lot of people seemed to think there was.
In one discussion, Chuck pointed out that when EVH used the technique he mainly stayed on the top three strings. He’d also noticed that Ed rarely crossed strings while doing it back in the day. However, a listen to the opening of “China Town” on 2012′s A Different Kind of Truth proves that’s no longer always the case, much like the the descending-left-hand/stationary-right approach is now evident today, but not then. Mind you this was also before the advent of the Steve Vais and Ritchie Kotzens who expanded the practice: this was “shred guitar” in its embryonic stages.
Chuck was somewhat ahead of his time in that even then he encouraged his students to explore moving shapes, and to cross strings when hammering. I also remember it was mentioned that low-string hammering was rare, so I set out to change that. I also discovered you could hammer a two-note passage far faster using your picking hand than you could do with two fingers on your fretting hand, which was an interesting, dynamic effect.
But why did most people only cop the EVH-style triplets when you have all those extra fingers on your fretting hand? Why not approach hammers as …rolling scales? We found out we weren’t the only ones to have that idea when we heard Jeff Watson of Night Ranger’s impressive, rarely-duplicated piano-esque “eight-finger” technique. That was beyond me but I knew I wanted to be able to hammer from one end of the neck to the other across all six strings if I wanted to, and I set out to accomplish that goal.
One of the first things to do is to map all the notes in the specific key you want to use on a fretboard chart, to easily visualize all the patterns available on all the strings, all the way up the neck. This is helpful in all aspects of your playing, not just hammering, so I highly recommend trying it (Ernie Ball and other manufacturers offer neck chart books, and there’s probably some printable version online). Once you have all your options visible, there are tons of possibilities that don’t sound like you’re ripping anyone (in particular) off.
After you’ve familiarized yourself to where your right-handed options become second nature, I encourage you to improvise. The more comfortable you become switching positions hammering across two strings, build up to three, etc. Before you know it you’ll be crossing the fretboard nearly effortlessly.
Here’s an example of an improvised, string-crossing hammered lick beginning on the high ‘E’ string and ending up on the low, in the key of A minor – this, while not without flaws, is a pretty decent example of what can happen once you’ve learned your options and just vibe with it. I was messing around doing a first-take lead, closed my eyes and went for it. I had NO idea what I’d done, actually had to go back and learn it! I love those moments as a player, where you listen back to something you improv’ed and you’re suddenly going “WTH did I just do?” Someone apparently agreed, because on the original Soundcloud version of this tune, there’s a timed comment at the moment of this lick: “Sick **** right there!”